Life and Death on the Gorge

Posted on March 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. 5 comments

The blog In the Footsteps of Joseph Rock has a terrific tribute to Margo Carter, an eccentric Australian woman who ran a guesthouse near the beginning of Yunnan’s Tiger Leaping Gorge trail. Carter died recently, likely from exposure while hiking. Sadly, her demise followed reports of bizarre behavior:

I got much of my information from a website set up by a Yunnan-based British trekking guide called Richard Scotford, who used to run a trekkers lodge in Deqin. In an article Death on The Kora, Richard describes a strange encounter he had with Margo while he was leading a group of trekkers over the Doker-La pass on the first leg of the Kawa Karpo kora in October 2009.

His group were surprised – to say the least – to be passed by a lone western woman traveling at speed (alone, that is, except for her dog and a local guide with a horse, left trailing well to the rear) and they noted that she was only lightly clad for the trail. Not only that, but they were taken aback by how rude she was to the trekking group, refusing to talk with them at all during their brief encounter on the trail.
Things got stranger later in the day when they saw her again and she chose to camp alongside them, but again was uncommunicative. That was until she started saying that she would ‘turn them in’ to the local authorities and warning them that they would be turned back at local police checkpoints further up the Salween (Nujiang) valley and the local Tibetans would shun them. The group were un-nerved by her unfriendly and bizarre behaviour (she would only talk to them in Chinese at one point) and her apparent threats.
Margo left early the next day and they never saw her again. In fact, they were some of the last people to see her alive. Richard is an experienced trekker in the region and he thought the claims that Margo made to them about the authorities were implausible and hard to believe. He was proved right. There were no roadblocks, and after some cautious checking, his group continued on uneventfully into the Salween valley, where the local Tibetans were friendly and helpful, and soon the trekkers had put the memory of this odd encounter with the ‘mad’ western woman out of their minds.
However, a few days later when they came to do the strenuous return leg of their kora, back over the high passes to the Mekong valley in the east, they got a shock. After the exhausting climb up to the exposed Shu-La pass, they descended on the eastern side to find Margo’s guide waiting at the first small settlement high up on the mountain. He was frantic and said he had not seen Margo for two days. She had gone missing at some point after leaving the guide behind when she hurried along in front to attempt the pass by herself

I actually met Margo once, when hiking the gorge in 2006. From what I remember she was small and wiry and talked a mile a minute; she struck me as the kind of person who was always doing a million things at once.

I found her helpful, though- she provided useful recommendations for how much to bring, for what to eat, and other details inexperienced hikers like me were bound to get wrong. She also recommended a guesthouse in Lijiang which proved to be a nice place to stay.

I imagine it takes a dash of eccentricity for a Westerner to want to live in a place as remote as the Gorge, and certainly spending 15 years there would be challenging from a mental health perspective.

The list of foreigners drawn to Yunnan’s stunning landscape is long and peppered with eccentrics like Margo, someone whom I’m sure never intended to settle here but did anyway. That her last days were characterized by bizarre and unpleasant behavior are merely a sad coda on what was apparently an interesting, full life South of the Clouds.

(link via Danwei)…

Chungking Express

Posted on March 27th, by matt_schiavenza in Travel. 1 Comment

I’m currently writing from the comforts of the Starbucks just astride the Liberation Monument right in the center of Chongqing, China, where I’m attending a work-related conference. My hotel, the conference room where my meetings have been, and my hotel form a triangle representing a mere sliver of this city. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to throw out thinly-referenced, totally unfair perceptions gleaned from my few days here.

Chongqing by some accounts is the largest city in the world. This might come as a surprise to some of you who, while your knowledge of Chinese geography might not be Magellan-like in its thoroughness, still think you’d know a fact like this. In fact, this distinction relies a little too much on misleading accounting.

Amid its various provinces, special administrative regions, and laughably named ‘autonomous regions’, China has four cities that serve as their own province: Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Chongqing. Until 1997, Chongqing was snuggled neatly in the eastern part of Sichuan Province. After a bit of administrative maneuvering, it is a province of its own.

So while there are technically 30 million people in Chongqing, this figure represents the population of the province, not the city. An area, mind you, roughly the size of the Netherlands. Fuling, the city made famous in Peter Hessler’s River Town, is now considered part of Chongqing.

Chongqing itself then isn’t the largest city in China, much less the world. This isn’t to say, though, that it’s in any way small. It’s astonishingly, mind-blowingly big. The skyline appearing on the banks of the Yangtze River stretches on for miles in all directions. Everywhere one looks in this city- provided the notorious air pollution isn’t particularly nasty that day- there are gigantic apartment and office blocks. The city’s many hills also allow for a number of neck-craning vistas during a day’s stroll around the center.

Chongqing is also known for its hot food- and hot women. Proving the former conviction is as easy as a bite of the city’s tongue-numbing hot pot cuisine.  As for the latter, conclusive evidence is rather more subjective, but in the humble opinion of this blogger the reputation is justified. Also hot- the tempers of the locals here. I knew the Sichuanese were fiery but even I was surprised to witness two near-fracases (fracasi?) in the space of five minutes while quietly eating a bowl of dandan noodles (担担面) only the aptly named Good Food Street (好吃街).

Tomorrow night I fly back into the mountainous redoubt I call home: Yunnan Province. But in the meantime I’ll enjoy my last 24 hours in one of China’s three furnances, one whose name rather unfortuantely has been given to a well-known Hong Kong slum guesthouse.…


Posted on March 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Travel. No Comments

I suppose China is one of the few countries in the world where one can have culture shock during a domestic trip. During my first two or three days in Shanghai’s French Concession, I felt much like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. We’re not in Kunming anymore, Toto.

That Shanghai is big needs no more comment. Nor that it is expensive- I felt like a country bumpkin when I audibly gasped at the price of a whiskey cocktail I had at a trendy bar. What struck me as most impressive about the city was the individuality of its businesses.

This might require further explanation. In Kunming, as in most Chinese cities, quite a lot of the businesses one encounters on the street have an ersatz quality. The various 小卖部, 兰州拉面,过桥米线, and other joints all resemble each other and have little discernible special qualities. It’s as if Kunming’s city planners conceived a Platonic ideal of a snack shop, replicated it a thousand times, and distributed them throughout the city.

In Shanghai I noticed that every little shop, or restaurant, had individual characteristics, much as they do in San Francisco and Paris and Istanbul.

Then again the cumulative effect of Shanghai is that you feel like you could be anywhere around the world.  I seem to think a Westerner could be transplanted into the French Concession, given a wad of 100 RMB notes, and feel utterly and completely at home.  I recall in Beijing wandering through neighborhoods that were unmistakably Chinese, while in Shanghai these proved elusive. For me, as a person very much at home in China, this felt unnerving.

Then again Shanghai has the hustle and bustle of a city that knows it’s world-class. The subway system is fantastic- clean, fast, efficient, comprehensive, and affordable.  Even the taxi drivers seemed to have a degree of professional polish occasionally lacking in places like Kunming.

Yet I wonder if in a way Shanghai hasn’t reverted back to its pre-revolutionary days as a playground for the international elite; a place whose back seems firmly turned against the hinterland behind it. I got a few looks from people when I mentioned that I lived in Kunming- like a visitor from the stix who wandered into the big city.

Nevertheless, as I sat with my perfect orange juice, coffee, and burrito breakfast one morning overlooking the city I felt a distinct sense that any city that can provide this, in such a setting, is alright by me.…

Shanghai Slim

Posted on March 17th, by matt_schiavenza in Travel. No Comments

I’m currently visiting the Whore of the Orient…no, silly, not a person but rather the city of Shanghai. I’m here attending a conference for work but will have  a few days off to explore a little. More content to come.…

Exceptionalism Cont.

Posted on March 10th, by matt_schiavenza in US Politics. 2 comments

Damon Linker of the New Republic has an interesting, intelligent response to the National Review article I linked to recently in defense of American exceptionalism. I particularly liked this remark about President Bush:

Lots of conservatives turned on George W. Bush by the end of his presidency. But here we see that if Bush didn’t exist, the right would have had to invent him. His proud parochialism, his simple-minded and insecure suspicion of intelligence, his swaggering self-righteousness€”all of it is the natural expression of contemporary conservatism’s outlook on the world.

Couldn’t agree more.

National Review has responded to Linker’s criticism, as well as other reactions, in this piece. I take exception- pun intended- to this comment about left-wing support of mass transit:

Contrary to our least literate critics, nothing in that passage suggests that we consider subways an infringement on our liberty. Nor does it mean that we are skeptical of mass-transit subsidies because the policy strikes us as European. It means something closer to the opposite: that we suspect that much of the enthusiasm for these subsidies among liberals is based on mass transit’s association with Europe.

Emphasis mine. This statement has it exactly wrong. Speaking as a liberal, my enthusiasm for subsidized mass transit comes from the fact that mass transit programs are environmentally sound, reduce dependency on foreign sources of energy, and are typically more efficient in and between urban areas than automobiles. These reasons derive from having empirically observed mass transit systems in action while living in foreign countries, and thus wishing subsidized programs to be implemented in the US.

The NR piece appears to accuse liberals of believing in European exceptionalism, when in fact the opposite is true. The conservative opposition to mass transit exists largely because it is less prevalent in the US than in Europe, and therefore in their twisted ideology must be better.

NR concludes with an absolute whopper of a statement. To wit:

Victor Davis Hanson notes that one reason for American exceptionalism may be that we did not inherit from England “a large underclass of only quasi-free people attached to barons as serfs.” Sadly, a worse institution took root here, but never became part of the national psyche.

The shocking part of this sentence? Hanson is actually a professor of history. This remark would embarrass a fifth-grader. But in their effort to keep any contrary evidence from interrupting their precious pet theory of American exceptionalism, NR somehow tries to argue that slavery ‘never became part of the national psyche’.

The mind boggles. I realize contemporary conservatives disdain intellectualism, but in publishing this piece shouldn’t an even cursory understanding of basic American history be required?

I realize I could probably devote hours of my time to reading mind-numbing right-wing screeds and rebutting them, but I think this question of exceptionalism cuts to the very core of how right-wing and left-wing Americans view our country. And as I’ve argued earlier, exceptionalism has a central position in contemporary Chinese politics as well.…

Bibles for Porn

Posted on March 5th, by matt_schiavenza in Technology & Society. 16 comments

It appears that a group of atheists in San Antonio, Texas, have launched a program in which college students can swap Bibles and other religious texts for high-class pornography. The idea is for people to equate the two rather than to actually promote porn. Clever? No doubt. Effective? I’d say no.

As an atheist, I’m well aware that our popularity ranks somewhere between Dick Cheney and herpes. Voters would almost certainly elect a transsexual murderer president, so long as he was a believer, over an atheist. I’d like very much to be able to put my weight behind an effective pro-atheist movement.

Bibles for porn isn’t it, for a few reasons. For one thing, it reinforces the image of atheists as a group of licentious libertines who would spike the school water supply with LSD given half a chance.  Hardcore Christians like to think that their morality derives entirely from faith, and that ergo those without faith somehow lack a morality. This idea is of course wrong, but handing out porn is hardly the way to disprove it.

The second thing I object to is the notion that the Bible is ‘smut’, as the program’s manifesto calls it. Hardly. The Bible is a book upon which the foundation of Western culture is based. For that reason alone, it has immense historical value. Rather than trading Bibles in for porn, atheists should actually sit and learn it. The world would be better off if people were to analyze ‘sacred’ texts critically rather than simply adopt their tenets wholesale.

Far more effective were the light and breezy ‘atheist bus’ campaign that made a slight stir in England last year.…

Dignity or Humiliation?

Posted on March 5th, by matt_schiavenza in China Culture, Chinese Internal Affairs. No Comments

It appears that our fair city of Kunming has received international press attention, though not for its beauty, good weather, or fine food. Nope, Kunming’s claim to fame may now be it’s dwarf theme park, which since last year has been open to the public. From the New York Times:

Chen Mingjing’s entrepreneurial instincts vaulted him from a peasant upbringing to undreamed-of wealth, acquired in ventures ranging from making electric meters to investing in real estate. But when he was 44, the allure of making money for money’s sake began to wane. He wanted to run a business that accomplished some good.

And so last September, Mr. Chen did what any socially aware entrepreneur might do: He opened a theme park of dwarfs, charging tourists about $9 a head to watch dozens of dwarfs in pink tutus perform a slapstick version of “Swan Lake” along with other skits.

At first glance this park appears to be a modern-day version of a circus freak show. But Mr. Chen swears that he’s actually offering a source of dignity to the vertically challenged by allowing them to live where they can be of normal height.

So it is an act of profitable compassion? Or perverse exploitation? Or both? I report, you decide.…

American Exceptionalism Revisited

Posted on March 1st, by matt_schiavenza in US Politics. 5 comments

In January I wrote that both China and the United States view themselves as exceptional nations, ones that resist comparison to other countries across a broad spectrum of issues. Members of the U.S Republican Party, I wrote, believe in the superiority of the American system regardless of any metric that proves otherwise.

Five weeks later I’m pleased to have come across a very long article in National Review, arguably the most influential conservative magazine in the US, in which the two authors explicitly cite exceptionalism as a chief American value and argue that President Obama is doing his best to undermine it.

I don’t have time to provide a thorough critique of the piece, but to give you an idea of the authors’ perspective let’s consider this statement from the fourth paragraph of the article.

Our country has always been exceptional. It is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth.

Lest you think I am taking this quote out of context, let me state that this statement is made without even the slightest attempt to provide scientific evidence for the claims. Instead, the authors ramble on for a couple thousand words about why American history proves our exceptionalism. As a polemic, their argument has merit. As a work of political and historical analysis it has none.

Let’s just take two of the claims under scrutiny. One is that the U.S. is ‘freer’ than any other country. The other is that it is the most ‘democratic’. In economic terms, the Wall Street Journal and Heritage Foundation- hardly bastions of Leftist ideology- listed New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Ireland, and Australia as the five ‘freest’ countries in the world. I wonder how National Review feels about a dreaded European state ranking higher than the US in terms of economic liberty.

NR‘s claim that the US is the most democratic country in the world is even more laughable. For starters, lets consider the institution of the U.S. Senate. The Senate grants an equal number of seats in the national legislature to all states regardless of population. This means that Wyoming, a state with a population of less than 500,000, has the same number votes as California, a state with roughly 80 times its population. When you factor in abysmal voting turnout statistics, a remarkably small percentage of Americans have a great influence on political outcomes in the US.

This Economist ranking of countries by their degree of democratization does not list the US in the top 15.  Countries that do make the list include Sweden, Iceland, Norway, The Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Ireland, Germany, and Austria. All part of, you guessed it, Europe. And the Economist too has never been accused of promoting a leftist agenda.

That being said, there are many things that the United States does quite well without having to resort to the ridiculous claims made in the NR piece. The US has an excellent university system that still attracts the world’s brightest and most ambitious students, many of whom remain in the country. The US also assimilates a large number of immigrants from across the globe with a lesser degree of social acrimony than in many European countries. These are certainly feats to be proud of.

But for contemporary American conservatives, it isn’t enough that the US outpaces all other countries in certain fields. We must be the best in all fields.  And while I (and President Obama) would agree that this ambition is admirable, it is ludicrous to suggest that at present it resembles the truth in any way. As a result the Right expends tremendous effort writing counter-intuitive missives explaining why, in fact, the American health care system or education system or this or that is actually the world’s best despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.…